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A SPRAY OF PINE
HOW different the expression of the pine, in fact of all the coniferæ, from that of the deciduous trees! Not different merely by reason of color and foliage, but by reason of form. The deciduous trees have greater diversity of shapes; they tend to branch endlessly; they divide and subdivide until the original trunk is lost in a maze of limbs. Not so the pine and its congeners. Here the main thing is the central shaft; there is one dominant shoot which leads all the rest, and which points the tree upward; the original type is never departed from: the branches shoot out at nearly right angles to the trunk, and occur in regular whorls; the main stem is never divided unless some accident nips the leading shoot, when two secondary branches will often rise up and lead the tree forward. The pine has no power to develop new buds, new shoots, like the deciduous trees; no power of spontaneous variation to meet new exigencies, new requirements. It is, as it were, cast in a mould. Its buds, its branches occur in regular series and after a regular pattern. Interrupt this series, try to vary this pattern, and the tree is powerless to adapt itself to any other. Victor Hugo, in his old age, compared himself to a tree that had been many times cut down, but which always sprouted again. But the pines do not sprout again. The spontaneous development of a new bud or a new shoot rarely or never occurs. The hemlock seems to be under the same law. I have cut away all the branches, and rubbed away all the buds, of a young sapling of this species, and found the tree, a year and a half later, full of life, but with no leaf or bud upon it. It could not break the spell. One bud would have released it and set its currents going again, but it was powerless to develop it. Remove the bud, or the new growth from the end of the central shaft of the branch of a pine, and in a year or two the branch will die back to the next joint; remove the whorl of branches here and it will die back to the next whorl, and so on.
When you cut the top of a pine or a spruce, removing the central and leading shaft, the tree does not develop and send forth a new one to take the place of the old, but a branch from the next in rank, that is, from the next whorl of limbs, is promoted to take the lead. It is curious to witness this limb rise up and get into position. One season I cut off the tops of some young hemlocks that were about ten feet high, that I had balled in the winter and had moved into position for a hedge. The next series of branches consisted of three that shot out nearly horizontally. As time passed, one of these branches, apparently the most vigorous, began to lift itself up very slowly toward the place occupied by the lost leader. The third year it stood at an angle of about forty-five degrees; the fourth year it had gained about half the remaining distance, when the clipping shears again cut it down. In five years it would probably have assumed an upright position. A white pine of about the same height lost its central shaft by a grub that developed from the egg of an insect, and I cut it away. It rose from a whorl of four branches, and it now devolved upon one of these to take the lead. Two of them, on opposite sides, were more vigorous than the other two, and the struggle now is as to which of these two shall gain the mastery. Both are rising up and turning toward the vacant chieftainship, and, unless something interferes, the tree will probably become forked and led upward by two equal branches. I shall probably humble the pride of one of the rivals by nipping its central shoot. One of my neighbors has cut off a yellow pine about six inches in diameter, so as to leave only one circle of limbs seven or eight feet from the ground. It is now the third year of the tree's decapitation, and one of this circle of horizontal limbs has risen up several feet, like a sleeper rising from his couch, and seems to be looking around inquiringly, as much as to say: “Come, brothers, wake up! Some one must take the lead here; shall it be I?”
In one of my Norway spruces I have witnessed the humbling or reducing to the ranks of a would-be leading central shoot. For a couple of years the vigorous young tree was led' upward by two rival branches; they appeared almost evenly matched; but on the third year one of them clearly took the lead, and at the end of the season was a foot or more in advance of the other. The next year the distance between them became still greater, and the defeated leader appeared to give up the contest, so that a season or two afterward it began to lose its upright attitude and to fall more and more toward a horizontal position; it was willing to go back into the ranks of the lateral branches. Its humiliation was so great that it even for a time dropped below them; but toward midsummer it lifted up its head a little, and was soon fairly in the position of a side branch, simulating defeat and willing subordination as completely as if it had been a conscious, sentient being.
The evergreens can keep a secret the year round, some one has said. How well they keep the secret of the shedding of their leaves! so well that in the case of the spruces we hardly know when it does occur. In fact, the spruces do not properly shed their leaves at all, but simply outgrow them, after carrying them an indefinite time. Some of the species carry their leaves five or six years. The hemlock drops its leaves very irregularly: the winds and the storms whip them off; in winter the snow beneath them is often covered with them.
But the pine sheds its leaves periodically, though always as it were stealthily and under cover of the newer foliage. The white pine usually sheds its leaves in midsummer, though I have known all the pines to delay till October. It is on with the new love before it is off with the old. From May till near autumn it carries two crops of leaves, last year's and the present year's. Emerson's inquiry,
“How the sacred pine-tree adds
To her old leaves new myriads,”
is framed in strict accordance with the facts. It is to her old leaves that she adds the new. Only the new growth, the outermost leaves, are carried over till the next season, thus keeping the tree always clothed and green. As its moulting season approaches, these old leaves, all the rear ranks on the limbs, begin to turn yellow, and a careless observer might think the tree was struck with death, but it is not. The decay stops just where the growth of the previous spring began, and presently the tree stands green and vigorous, with a newly-laid carpet of fallen leaves beneath it.
I wonder why it is that the pine has an ancient look, a suggestion in some way of antiquity? Is it because we know it to be the oldest tree? or is it not rather that its repose, its silence, its un-changeableness, suggest the past, and cause it to stand out in sharp contrast upon the background of the flitting, fugitive present? It has such a look of permanence! When growing from the rocks, it seems expressive of the same geologic antiquity as they. It has the simplicity of primitive things; the deciduous trees seem more complex, more heterogeneous; they have greater versatility, more resources. The pine has but one idea, and that is to mount heavenward by regular steps, — tree of fate, tree of dark shadows and of mystery.
The pine is the tree of silence. Who was the Goddess of Silence? Look for her altars amid the pines, — silence above, silence below. Pass from deciduous woods into pine woods of a windy day, and you think the day has suddenly become calm. Then how silent to the foot! One walks over a carpet of pine needles almost as noiselessly as over the carpets of our dwellings. Do these halls lead to the chambers of the great, that all noise should be banished from them? Let the designers come here and get the true pattern for a carpet, — a soft yellowish brown with only a red leaf, or a bit of gray moss, or a dusky lichen scattered here and there; a background that does not weary or bewilder the eye, or insult the ground-loving foot.
How friendly the pine-tree is to man, — so docile and available as timber, and so warm and protective as shelter! Its balsam is salve to his wounds, its fragrance is long life to his nostrils; an abiding, perennial tree, tempering the climate, cool as murmuring waters in summer and like a wrapping of fur in winter.
The deciduous trees are inconstant friends that fail us when adverse winds do blow; but the pine and all its tribe look winter cheerily in the face, tossing the snow, masquerading in his arctic livery, in fact holding high carnival from fall to spring.
The Norseman of the woods, lofty and aspiring, tree without bluster or noise, that sifts the howling storm into a fine spray of sound; symmetrical tree, tapering, columnar, shaped as in a lathe, the preordained mast of ships, the mother of colossal timbers; centralized, towering, patriarchal, coming down from the foreworld, counting centuries in thy rings and outlasting empires in thy decay.
A little tall talk seems not amiss on such a subject. The American or white pine has been known to grow to a height of two hundred and sixty feet, slender and tapering as a rush, and equally available for friction matches or the mast of a ship of the line. It is potent upon the sea and upon the land, and lends itself to become a standard for giants or a toy for babes, with equal readiness. No other tree so widely useful in the mechanic arts, or so beneficent in the economy of` nature. House of refuge for the winter birds, and inn and hostelry for the spring and fall emigrants. All the northern creatures are more or less dependent upon the pine. Nature has made a singular exception in the conformation of the beaks of certain birds, that they might the better feed upon the seeds of its cones, as in the crossbills. Then the pine grosbeak and pine linnet are both nurslings of this tree. Certain of the warblers, also, the naturalist seldom finds except amid its branches.
The dominant races come from the region of the pine.
“Who liveth by the ragged pine
Foundeth a heroic line;”
“Who liveth in the palace hall
Waneth fast and spendeth all.”
The pines of Norway and Sweden sent out the vikings, and out of the pine woods of northern Europe came the virile barbarian overrunning the effete southern countries.
“And grant to dwellers with the pine
Dominion o'er the palm and vine.”
There is something sweet and piny about the northern literatures as contrasted with those of the voluble and passionate south, — something in them that heals the mind's hurts like a finer balsam. In reading Bjornson, or Andersen, or Russian Turgéneff, though one may not be in contact with the master spirits of the world, he is yet inhaling an atmosphere that is resinous and curative; he is under an influence that is arboreal, temperate, balsamic.
“The white pine,” says Wilson Flagg in his “Woods and By-Ways of New England,” “has no legendary history. Being an American tree, it is celebrated neither in poetry nor romance.” Not perhaps in Old World poetry and romance, but certainly in that of the New World. The New England poets have not overlooked the pine, however much thy may have gone abroad for their themes and tropes. Whittier's “My Playmate” is written to the low monotone of the pine.
“The pines were dark on Ramoth hill,
Their song was soft and low;
The blossoms in the sweet May wind
Were falling like the snow.”
Lowell's “To a Pine-Tree” is well known,
“Far up on Katahdin thou towerest
Purple-blue with the distance and vast;
Like a cloud o'er the lowlands thou lowerest,
That hangs poised on a lull in the blast
To its fall leaning awful.”
In his “A Mood” his attention is absorbed by this tree, and in the poet's quest of the muse he says,
“I haunt the pine-dark solitudes,
With soft brown silence carpeted.”
But the real white pine among our poets is Emerson. Against that rustling deciduous background of the New England poets he shows dark and aspiring. Emerson seems to have a closer fellowship with the pine than with any other tree, and it recurs again and again in his poems. In his “Garden” the pine is the principal vegetable, the snow-loving pines,” as he so aptly says, and “the hemlocks tall, untamable.” It is perhaps from the pine that he gets the idea that “Nature loves the number five;” its leaves are in fives and its whorl of branches is composed of five. His warbler is the “pine warbler,” and he sees “the pigeons in the pines,” where they are seldom to be seen. He even puts a “pine state-house” in his “Boston Hymn.”
But, more than that, his “Woodnotes,” one of his longest poems, is mainly the notes of the pine.
Theodore Parker said that a tree that talked like Emerson's pine ought to be cut down; but if the pine were to find a tongue, I should sooner expect to hear the Emersonian dialect from it than almost any other. It would be pretty high up, certainly, and go over the heads of most of the other trees. It were sure to be pointed, though the point few could see. And it would not be garrulous and loudmouthed, though it might talk on and on. Whether it would preach or not is a question, but I have no doubt it would be a fragrant healing gospel if it did. I think its sentences would be short ones with long pauses between them, and that they would sprout out of the subject independently and not connect or interlock very much. There would be breaks and chasms or maybe some darkness between the lines, but I should expect from it a lofty, cheerful, and all-the-year-round philosophy. The temptation to be oracular would no doubt be great, and could be more readily overlooked in this tree than in any other. Then, the pine being the oldest tree, great wisdom and penetration might be expected of it.
Though Emerson's pine boasts
“My garden is the cloven rock,
And my manure the snow;
And drifting sand-heaps feed my stock,
In summer's scorching glow,” —
yet the great white pine loves a strong deep soil. How it throve along our river bottom and pointed out the best land to the early settlers! Remnants of its stumps are still occasionally seen in land that has been given to the plow these seventy or eighty years. In Pennsylvania the stumps are wrenched from the ground by machinery and used largely for fencing. Laid upon their side with their wide branching roots in the air, they form a barrier before which even the hound-pursued deer may well pause.
This aboriginal tree is fast disappearing from the country. Its second growth seems to be a degenerate race, what the carpenters contemptuously call pumpkin pine, on account of its softness. All the large tracts and provinces of the original tree have been invaded and ravished by the lumbermen, so that only isolated bands, and straggling specimens, like the remnants of a defeated and disorganized army, are now found scattered up and down the country. The spring floods on our northern rivers have for decades of years been moving seething walls of pine logs, sweeping down out of the wilderness. I remember pausing beside a mammoth pine in the Adirondack woods, standing a little to one side of the destroyer's track, that must have carried its green crown near one hundred and fifty feet above the earth. How such a tree impresses one! How it swells at the base and grows rigid as if with muscular effort in its determined gripe of the earth! How it lays hold of the rocks, or rends them asunder to secure its hold! Nearly all trunk, it seems to have shed its limbs like youthful follies as it went skyward, or as the builders pull down their scaffoldings and carry them higher as the temple mounts; nothing superfluous, no waste of time or energy, the one purpose to cleave the empyrean steadily held to.
At the Centennial fair I saw a section of a pine from Canada that was eight feet in diameter, and that had been growing, I have forgotten how many centuries. But this was only a sapling beside the redwoods of California, one of which would carry several such trees in his belt.
In the absence of the pine, the hemlock is a graceful and noble tree. In primitive woods it shoots up in the same manner, drawing the ladder up after it, and attains an altitude of nearly or quite a hundred feet. It is the poor man's pine, and destined to humbler uses than its lordlier brother. It follows the pine like a servitor, keeping on higher and more rocky ground, and going up the minor branch valleys when the pine follows only the main or mother stream. As an ornamental tree it is very pleasing, and deserves to be cultivated more than it is. It is a great favorite with the sylvan folk, too. The ruffed grouse prefer it to the pine; it is better shelter in winter, and its buds are edible. The red squirrel has found out the seeds in its cones, and they are an important part of his winter stores. Some of the rarer warblers, too, like the Blackburnian and the blue yellow-back, I never find except among the hemlocks. The older ornithologists, Audubon and Wilson, named a “hemlock warbler” also, but this bird turns out to be none other than the young of the Blackburnian described as a new species and named for its favorite tree.
All trees in primitive woods are less social, less disposed to intermingle, than trees in groves or fields: they are more heady; they meet only on high grounds; they shake hands over the heads of their neighbors; the struggle for life is sharper and more merciless, — in these and other respects suggesting men in cities. One tree falls against a more stanch one, and bruises only itself; a weaker one it carries to the ground with it.
Both the pine and the hemlock make friends with the birch, the maple, and the oak, and one of the most pleasing and striking features of our autumnal scenery is a mountain side sown broadcast with these intermingled trees, forming a combination of colors like the richest tapestry, the dark green giving body and permanence, the orange and yellow giving light and brilliancy.